Whey Protein: The Complete Guide to the Most Popular Protein Supplement for Strength Athletes

When you quaff a protein shake following a grueling workout, chances are the protein in said shake is whey protein. Whey protein is, by far, the most common and popular type of protein used for muscle-building purposes.

Whey protein is an excellent and cheap source of protein, suitable for anyone looking for an all-round protein supplement in general and for people engaging in strength training in particular. In this article, you will find everything you need to know about whey protein: what it is, when to use it, how much to use, and much more.

What is Whey Protein?

Whey protein is one of the two milk proteins. The other milk protein is called casein.

Whey and casein have, in many respects, opposite effects:

  • Whey is a so-called fast protein. This means that it is rapidly expelled from your stomach and absorbed into your bloodstream. After that, it quickly activates muscle protein synthesis in a powerful way.
  • Casein, on the other hand, coagulates in your stomach and is slowly absorbed over a much longer period of time. It also stimulates muscle protein synthesis, but in a less pronounced and more prolonged fashion.

Where Does Whey Protein Come From?

In your regular diet, you can only find whey protein in dairy products like milk, yoghurt, certain cheeses, and foods where milk is one of the ingredients. Whey is probably most known as the main component of protein powders, although it is originally a byproduct from the manufacture of cheese. Protein powders in general, including whey protein, aren’t really dietary supplements, as they are made from whole foods and offer the same benefits.1

When you mix a protein shake using whey protein powder, you are using cow’s milk protein. However, the milk from all animals that produce breast milk contains whey protein. Regular cow’s milk contains about 20% whey, while the rest of the protein content is casein.
The milk proteins of other animals have different ratios of whey to casein. Goat’s milk, for example, contains more whey and less casein than cow’s milk. The milk from our horned friends contains around 60% casein and 40% whey.2 The whey content of the protein in human milk varies from 80% during early lactation to 50 % or so at the end of lactation.3

In this article, we are talking about whey protein from bovine milk, good old moo juice, unless otherwise specified.

The Composition of Whey Protein

Whey protein is really a mixture of different proteins, isolated from the liquid produced during cheese manufacture. This liquid is simply called whey.

The two main whey proteins are alpha-lactalbumin and beta-lactoglobulin. The first regulates lactose production in the milk, while beta-lactoglobulin is a protein that acts as a transporter for vitamin A in cows. Other proteins found in whey include bovine serum albumin, which transports fatty acids, and immunoglobulines, which, as the name suggests, fulfill various important functions in the passive immune system of the offspring.

In addition to these main proteins, you also find bioactive proteins, enzymes and peptides like lactoferrin, lactoperoxidase, and NOP-47 in smaller amounts. These control stuff like parts of your immune system and bacterial growth.

All proteins are made up of amino acids, smaller building blocks chained together to form an intact protein. Whey protein is no exception. There are 20 amino acids in the genetic code, and your body uses these to form proteins, including muscle protein. They are divided into essential and non-essential amino acids. All amino acids are important for your health and tissue repair, but only nine them are classified as essential, meaning that your body can’t produce them on it’s own. You have to provide them through your diet. The essential amino acids are also the ones you need to trigger and maintain muscle protein synthesis.

Read more: Protein for Strength Athletes and Bodybuilders – How Much, How Often, and What Kind

A complete protein is a protein that provides you with all the essential amino acids in adequate amounts. Whey protein in particular provides a plentiful supply of essential amino acids, making it a very high quality protein. Whey has a high content of BCAA, the branched-chain amino acids leucine, valine, and isoleucine. These three amino acids play vital roles in promoting muscle growth. Leucine in particular is the one amino acid that triggers muscle protein synthesis.

This is what the amino acid composition of whey protein looks like:4

As you can see, whey protein is an excellent source of all the amino acids you need to build muscle. In addition, it is actually a better source of BCAAs than a BCAA-supplement. Ingesting the branched-chain amino acids by themselves is not enough to promote muscle protein synthesis properly. You need all the essential amino acids. When you give your muscles access to BCAA together with the other essential amino acids, like when you eat or drink whey protein, they are much more effective. A serving of whey protein provides enough BCAA in general and leucine in particular to maximally stimulate muscle protein synthesis. The same amount of BCAAs on their own, on the other hand, is only 20% more anabolic than tap water.5

Read more: BCAA Supplements: Beneficial or a Waste of Money?

Different Types of Whey Protein

When you buy whey in the form of protein powder, you have four different types to choose from: concentrate, isolate, hydrolysate, and native whey. They all differ from each other in one or more ways. They all consist of different amounts of protein by weight, have different absorption rates, and are manufactured using different methods and filtering techniques.

Whey Protein Concentrate

The most common type of whey protein is the concentrate. It is also the cheapest. Whey concentrate is not as heavily processed as isolate or hydrolysate. Concentrate contains between 35 to 80% protein by weight.6 In commercial whey concentrate powders intended for athletes and as dietary supplements, the amount of protein is usually closer to 80%, although some fall a bit below this mark. This is mostly due to the manufacturers not filtrating the whey as heavily, thereby not removing as much lactose and fat from the source material.

When you make a protein shake using whey concentrate, you will find that it turns out thicker than when using isolate. Many also prefer the taste of concentrate, likely because of the higher sugar and fat content masking the taste of the protein itself.

Whey Protein Isolate

While concentrate might be the most common type of whey protein on the market, isolate is the form most often used in strength training research and in studies examining the effects of protein on muscle protein synthesis.

Whey isolate is higher in protein content than concentrate, having gone through more steps of processing and filtering. These steps remove most of the fat and the lactose from the whey, resulting in an end product with at least 90 grams of protein per 100 grams of dry weight. 7

Even if you can’t use whey concentrate because of lactose intolerance issues, chances are that you can use isolate, since almost all of the milk sugar is removed during the processing.

Since whey isolate is almost devoid of carbohydrates and fat, you won’t get the same creamy texture as from a concentrate, when mixing it with a fluid. Some don’t enjoy the taste experience because of this, although it does make isolate easier to mix. It doesn’t clot to the same extent or form undissolved clumps of protein powder in the shake.

Whey Protein Hydrolysate

A protein hydrolysate has been treated with enzymes, breaking down the structure of the protein, from the peptide bonds of concentrates and isolates into free form amino acids and di- and tripeptides. Di- and tripeptides are two or three amino acid molecules joined by one or two amide bonds.

Since hydrolysed whey protein is already broken down, your stomach doesn’t have to do as much work, leading to a faster absorption rate. The amino acids appear in your bloodstream sooner and you get a more substantial insulin spike than concentrate or isolate provide.8

Because the protein is already chopped up and pre-digested in a way, whey hydrolysate has quite the bitter taste. Amino acids have a naturally unpleasant taste, and compared to an intact, natural protein, that taste is harder to disguise by using sweeteners and flavoring agents.

Native Whey

Native whey is a form of whey protein produced through the filtration of unprocessed, raw milk. The result is a protein powder with larger proteins and more leucine than the other types of whey protein. When you ingest native whey, more leucine appears in your blood in a shorter amount of time.

Since high levels of plasma leucine means greater muscle protein synthesis, native whey could in theory stimulate muscle protein synthesis more effectively than concentrate or isolate. However, this does not seem to happen. One study compared native whey with the same amount of protein from whey concentrate, without any differences in anabolic effects or muscle protein synthesis.9 Another study gave elderly individuals native whey during 11 weeks of training, but a control group drinking regular milk saw similar improvements in muscle mass.10

Which Type of Whey Protein is Right for You?

For most people, there is no reason to pick any other form of whey protein than concentrate. Concentrate is the cheapest to buy, and nothing indicates that the other types of whey protein give you better results in the form of muscle mass and strength.

If you are lactose intolerant, whey isolate might be worth the extra money. Other than that, it mostly comes down to personal preference. If you like the taste or solubility of isolate more, it might be worth the higher price tag to you. However, don’t expect any different results from your efforts in the gym depending on which type of whey protein you use.

Hydrolysed whey is expensive, and you might find it hard to come to terms with the taste. There is no evidence that using hydrolysate leads to more muscle mass than concentrate or isolate.11 Some studies suggest that hydrolysate could improve muscular recovery a bit faster than isolate, though.12

Native whey is often several times more expensive than whey concentrate, but does not offer any advantages in real-life use.

When and How to Use Whey Protein?

Like we mentioned earlier, whey protein doesn’t have to be a dietary supplement. It’s a protein source, made from whole foods, like any other, even if it came in a tub of dry powder instead if in the form of a steak or a dozen eggs. This means that you don’t have to treat whey protein, or any other kind of protein powder for that matter, with any special respect.

Use it like you use any other protein source in your diet. The most common way to use whey protein is almost certainly before or after a workout, to give your muscles what they need, when they need it. To repair themselves and grow from your efforts. However, you can use whey protein at any point during the day. You can use it as a snack, in between meals, to fortify a low-protein meal, or even as the main source of protein in one of your regular meals like breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s up to you and your culinary imagination. Just add the protein from your whey supplement to your daily total. Easy as that. No more and no less.

There is a common belief that drinking a protein shake immediately after a workout is essential to promote optimal muscle growth or that the workout will go to waste without it. This does not seem to be the case at all. Strength training elevates muscle protein synthesis for 24 hours or more after the workout. During this time, your amino acid sensitivity is improved.13 This means that your muscles respond to a protein intake by building more muscle during this time. There is no evidence that you will build more muscle by ingesting protein immediately following your workout compared to an hour or so later.14

There is no rush if you don’t want there to be. 

Feel free to use whey as your go-to protein source after training, but don’t feel like you need to reach for your shake the minute you are done working out. You do need protein after a workout in order for muscle protein synthesis to exceed muscle protein breakdown, but it’s not a battle against time like some seem to think.

In addition, you can use whey protein for more than shakes. Mix it into whatever you want or add it to your pancake batter or your oatmeal in order to fortify it with extra protein. You could even eat it with a spoon, straight from the tub, as long as you don’t mind chalk mouth and the risk of choking.

How Much Whey Protein Should You Take?

If you use too little whey protein per serving, you won’t get the maximal anabolic effect. If you use more than you need, all you get is an expensive source of calories. How much is too little or too much?

Isolated Intakes in the Form of Protein Shakes

Twenty grams of whey protein stimulate muscle protein synthesis maximally, both at rest and after strength training.15 Therefore, there is no reason to use more than that, whether you have exercised or not, especially since whey protein does not reduce muscle protein breakdown to any significant extent.16 A larger dose stimulates amino acid oxidation and excretion of nitrogen, not muscle protein synthesis. Note that 20 grams means 20 grams of protein, not 20 grams of powder. You need more than 20 grams of powder to get 20 grams of protein, since whey protein powder is not 100% pure protein, regardless of type.

One exception to the 20 gram recommendation is following full body workouts, or at least workouts where you train several muscle groups. Then you can benefit from greater amounts of whey protein. After a full body workout, 40 grams of whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis to a greater degree than 20 grams.17 We are not talking about a dose-dependent effect where twice the amount of protein gives you twice the muscle growth. The anabolic effects of double the amount of whey protein after a full body workout are greater, but only by about 20%. A matter of diminishing returns, in other words.

The available evidence does not support claims that your body mass or body weight dictate how much whey protein you can use per serving.18 A large person needs more protein during the day as a whole, but probably not per intake. The important thing seems to be the levels of amino acids in your blood. It’s all about the signals for muscle protein synthesis these amino acids start, not about how much of the protein you just ate or drank that ends up as muscle protein.

If you are older, say 60 or above, you also need more protein per serving for a robust muscle protein synthesis response. You should always aim for 40 grams of whey protein per serving.19

Whey Protein as Part of a Regular Meal

If you use whey protein as a protein source in a regular mixed meal, you don’t need to limit the amount you use to 20 grams in order to benefit from it. Use it as any other protein source in your diet.

As previously mentioned, whey protein is a protein source like any other. There is one exception to that statement, however. You absorb whey protein faster than other proteins in your diet. This means that the muscle-building properties of whey, while powerful, do not last very long. If you consume the whey on it’s own, not as part of a complete meal, that is. In that case, you can utilize between 20 to 40 grams, depending on the circumstances. You don’t pee away the excess, but it won’t be used for what you probably are looking for either, the muscle-building effect.

You can’t use more than around 40 grams of other protein sources, proteins that have a much slower absorption rate, to synthesize muscle protein, either. However, slow proteins have an advantage that fast proteins like whey more or less lack. If you eat more of a slow protein, it will still improve your muscle protein balance. Even if you don’t increase muscle protein synthesis further, you decrease protein breakdown for much longer.20 In addition, a protein that is absorbed over a longer period of time can be utilized in your normal protein synthesis for a longer time, even if it does not elevate it over normal levels for more than a few hours.

If you use whey protein to increase the protein content of a low-protein meal, or as a main protein source in a complete, mixed meal, the absorption rate will slow down significantly. This evens out the differences between whey protein and a slower protein.

In summary, use whey protein as a regular protein source for your meals, if and when you want, the way you prefer.

Read more: How Much Protein from a Single Meal Can Your Body Use to Build Muscle Mass?

Should You Use Whey Protein Before or After a Workout?

It doesn’t matter.

Muscle protein synthesis remains at basal levels while you train and during the hour after your workout. After that, it rises quickly to significantly higher levels than normal. A pre-workout whey protein shake stimulates muscle protein synthesis just as well as a post-workout shake.21 If you drink a whey protein shake before you work out, amino acid uptake in the muscle is elevated while you train, and only returns to normal levels several hours afterwards. You can use amino acids from protein you eat or drink before a training session to build muscle afterwards.

No study has looked at the potential long-term benefits of using whey protein both before and after workouts. Since one serving of whey either before or after a training session results in maximum muscle protein synthesis, it seems unlikely that such a protocol would result in different outcomes, except for your wallet.

If you eat a regular protein-rich meal an hour or two before you train, you don’t need pre-workout whey protein in addition to that. Pre-exercise protein also makes another protein intake as soon as possible once you are done training much less important. Your muscles have access to all the amino acids they need anyway.

Whey Protein and Muscle Protein Synthesis

Soon after eating or drinking whey protein, your muscle protein synthesis increases. Whey protein is absorbed quickly, which means that it leaves your gut quickly and the amino acids are released into your bloodstream quickly. Sudden and robust elevations of plasma amino acids, leucine in particular, set signaling mechanisms that increase muscle protein synthesis in motion. Amino acids, both from the whey protein itself and from previously broken down muscle protein, respond to these signals and form new muscle protein.

Whey protein ingestion elevates muscle protein synthesis in a more powerful way than other proteins. However, the elevation also lasts for a shorter period of time. After only 45 to 120 minutes, with a peak around an hour after intake, muscle protein synthesis gradually returns to basal levels.

Slow proteins, meaning most of the protein in the food you normally eat, do not stimulate muscle protein synthesis as powerfully. Since they are absorbed over a longer time, they also affect your muscle protein balance balance longer. In addition, slow protein decreases protein breakdown, something whey protein only does to a limited extent.

Stimulating muscle protein synthesis this way might be less important for muscle hypertrophy than most people think.

It’s certainly not wrong to stimulate your protein synthesis through eating and drinking protein. The acute effects of feeding on muscle protein synthesis likely do play a part in muscle growth, but it might not be the number one factor. Recent research suggests that long-term strength training regulates gene expression and muscle ribosome biogenesis, creating a more anabolic environment for your muscles 24/7.22 This could very well be more important for muscle growth than an hour here and there of increased protein synthesis.

Will You Build More Muscle if You Use Whey Protein?

Whey protein definitely and demonstrably increases the rate at which you synthesize new muscle protein. Does this mean that you will see any practical benefits in the form of more muscle mass if you drink whey protein shakes on a regular basis?

Yes. No. Maybe.

It depends.

Without any doubt, protein is essential for building muscle. Whey protein has powerful short-term effects on muscle protein synthesis, probably more so than any other protein. This sounds awesome, but it’s not a guarantee that you will build more muscle mass by using whey protein.

The main thing that makes your muscles grow is strength training. For strength training to be as effective as possible in this regard, you need enough energy and protein. The most important thing when it comes to your protein intake is the total amount you eat. Other factors, like the timing of your protein intake, what type of protein you eat, and your meal frequency, are quite unimportant. Their importance pale in comparison. You might need to consider them when you train and maybe compete at a higher level, but not as an intermediate who wants to gain muscle.

In order to build muscle in an efficient way, you need around 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight a day. Maybe a little less, maybe a little more. Somewhere thereabouts. We are talking about the total amount of protein you eat and drink in one day, everything included, not just “clean” protein sources like meat, fish or protein powder.

If you already eat this amount of protein, you will not build more muscle by adding whey protein to your diet plan. You will get more calories, which in turn might make you build more muscle. In that case, any improvement will be from an increased calorie intake in general, not from the whey protein per se. You would have gotten the same results from pretty much anything with the same number of calories.

If you don’t already eat that amount of protein, meaning you eat suboptimal amounts of protein to promote gains in muscle mass, then yes, that’s something else entirely. In that case, you will improve your chances of building muscle by adding whey protein. Once again, however, you won’t build more muscle just because it’s whey protein. You will do so because you now eat enough protein in general to promote muscle growth properly. If you had eaten a larger steak for dinner or added a few more eggs to your breakfast omelet, you would have improved your chances just as much.

Don’t take this as meaning that whey protein is a bad choice. On the contrary. Whey protein is a cheap, effective, easy to use, and, hopefully, tasty alternative, just as good as any other. However, keep in mind that whey protein is not something with magical properties for building muscle, even though it might be made out to be in marketing and advertisements.

Satiety and Weight Loss

Protein is more satiating than fat or carbohydrate.23 When your goal is to lose weight and body fat, not walking around hungry all the time is an obvious advantage. By increasing your protein intake, you will reduce the risk of having to suffer through hunger to get in shape.

A high protein diet will increase your energy expenditure, decrease your appetite, and make you spontaneously eat less without even having to think about it.24

Whey protein is an excellent choice here. A meta-analysis with a total of 626 subjects demonstrated that you can increase your fat free mass and lose more body fat, if you engage in strength training and replace some of the calories you eat with whey protein.25

Several studies show that whey protein minimizes your muscle loss while losing weight, even without strength training.26 27 With strength training, you can even increase your muscle mass at the same time. Most likely, it’s a higher protein intake in general that is responsible for the positive results of these studies, but they do demonstrate that whey protein is a great choice if you want to lose weight but keep your muscle mass.

Safety

Whey protein is safe. There are no side effects reported in the scientific literature.28

If you are lactose intolerant, you might have issues using whey concentrate, since it is a dairy product with some lactose remaining. In that case, you can try whey isolate instead of concentrate. Isolates are more thoroughly filtrated, contain minimal amounts of lactose, and usually work for anyone who isn’t severely intolerant. Lactose intolerance isn’t dangerous, so if you accidentally use a whey protein with higher amounts of lactose, it won’t harm you. It might turn out to be inconvenient and maybe temporarily painful, but needing immediate access to a toilet isn’t a health hazard. At least not to you.

Cow’s milk protein allergy is when you are allergic to one or more of the milk proteins. If you are allergic to whey protein, it’s definitely a very bad idea to try to use it anyway. However, if you are, you are probably already aware of it and the potential consequences.

Some kidney diseases and issues require you to stay away from a high protein intake. Whey protein is nothing out of the ordinary in that case, and should be treated as any other protein source. Neither whey protein or protein in general cause harm to healthy kidneys.29 30 If you have any kind of kidney disease or decreased kidney function, you should consult your doctor before supplementing your diet with any kind of protein.

Health Benefits of Whey Protein

Whey is not only good for building bigger muscles. It also offers health benefits in general.

Several studies show that whey can lower your blood pressure and improve your vascular function. This effect is only apparent if you are overweight and already hypertensive.31 32

Whey is good for your blood sugar. It has beneficial effects on blood sugar control in normal weight and overweight individuals. Both non-insulin resistant and healthy people enjoy this effect.33 Even if whey protein is highly insulinotropic, more so than sugar and other proteins, it actually improves insulin sensitivity and protects against insulin resistance, likely by stimulating incretin hormone release. This means additional benefits for diabetics. In one study, adding whey protein to mashed potatoes with meatballs improved glycemic control after the meal in patients with diabetes type 2.34

Acute inflammation is not inherently bad. In fact, an inflammatory response to a training session is part of what makes your muscles grow bigger and stronger. However, chronic inflammatory states are detrimental for pretty much everything. C-reactive protein (CRP) is a marker for inflammation. CRP levels increase when you have inflammation. A meta-analysis showed that supplementing with whey protein can reduce CRP levels, if your base levels are elevated.35

Whey has anti-oxidative properties and improves markers for oxidative stress. This is especially apparent in individuals exposed to high amounts of oxidative stress, like during illness and during periods of intense training. The relevance for otherwise healthy athletes is unclear, though. The anti-oxidative effects of a gram of whey protein are nowhere near those of a gram of green tea, for example. On the other hand, the average serving of whey protein far exceeds that of green tea.36

As previously mentioned, whey protein can make losing weight easier by keeping your appetite and hunger under control. Losing weight provides plenty of health benefits, if you are overweight.

In summary, whey has a number of positive health effects. It has even been mentioned as an adjunct therapy in cancer treatment in the scientific literature.37 Most of these positive effects seem to be apparent if you already have health issues, if your blood pressure is already high, if you are diabetic, and so on. If you are healthy, you won’t experience any dramatic improvements in your health by adding whey protein to your diet. On the other hand, it’s good to know that IF your health is affected by your whey intake, it is most likely in a positive way.

Summary and Conclusion

  • Whey is a high-quality protein, and can help you build muscle and get stronger, if you don’t get enough protein from your regular diet.
  • You will not gain muscle by using whey protein, if you already get sufficient amounts of protein from your diet. However, whey protein is a good choice of protein as part of your daily protein intake.
  • Whey is safe, without any known side effects, apart from those directly related to dairy products in general for those with lactose intolerance and milk protein allergy. You won’t develop these problems by using whey protein, if you don’t already have them. If you DO already have them, whey protein might not be for you. Certainly not if you are allergic to whey protein. There are, however, forms of whey that mitigate or eliminate the lactose intolerance issue.
  • Whey concentrate is the best choice of whey protein, if you don’t need another form for some specific reason, like lactose intolerance. Whey concentrate builds just as much muscle as the other types, and costs quite a bit less money.
  • Twenty grams of whey protein stimulates muscle protein synthesis maximally. Larger servings do not have any extra effect. The exceptions are if you have trained large parts of your body or if you are elderly. In those cases, you can use 40 grams per serving for muscle-building purposes.
  • You can use whey protein as any other regular protein source. Whey gives your muscles what they need, both after a workout and as a protein source in any of your regular meals.

That’s it! You’ve reached the end of our guide on whey protein.

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